Albert Abraham Michelson FFRS HFRSE (surname pronunciation anglicized as “Michael-son”, 19 December 1852 to 09 May 1931) was a German-born American physicist known for his work on measuring the speed of light and especially for the Michelson-Morley experiment.
In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in a science. He was the founder and the first head of the physics department of the University of Chicago.
Michelson was born in Strelno, Posen, Kingdom of Prussia (modern-day Strzelno, Poland), to Jewish parents, the son of Samuel Michelson and his wife, Rozalia Przyłubska. He moved to the US with his parents in 1855, at the age of two. He grew up in the mining towns of Murphy’s Camp, California and Virginia City, Nevada, where his father was a merchant. His family was non-religious, and Michelson himself was a lifelong agnostic. He spent his high school years in San Francisco in the home of his aunt, Henriette Levy (née Michelson), who was the mother of author Harriet Lane Levy.
President Ulysses S. Grant awarded Michelson a special appointment to the US Naval Academy in 1869. During his four years as a midshipman at the Academy, Michelson excelled in optics, heat, climatology and technical drawing. After graduating in 1873 and two years at sea, he returned to the Naval Academy in 1875 to become an instructor in physics and chemistry until 1879. In 1879, he was posted to the Nautical Almanac Office, Washington (part of the United States Naval Observatory), to work with Simon Newcomb. In the following year he obtained leave of absence to continue his studies in Europe. He visited the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, and the Collège de France and École Polytechnique in Paris.
Michelson was fascinated with the sciences, and the problem of measuring the speed of light in particular. While at Annapolis, he conducted his first experiments on the speed of light, as part of a class demonstration in 1877. His Annapolis experiment was refined, and in 1879, he measured the speed of light in air to be 299,864 ± 51 kilometres per second, and estimated the speed of light in vacuum as 299,940 km/s, or 186,380 mi/s. After two years of studies in Europe, he resigned from the Navy in 1881. In 1883 he accepted a position as professor of physics at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio and concentrated on developing an improved interferometer. In 1887 he and Edward Morley carried out the famous Michelson-Morley experiment which failed to detect evidence of the existence of the luminiferous ether. He later moved on to use astronomical interferometers in the measurement of stellar diameters and in measuring the separations of binary stars.
In 1889 Michelson became a professor at Clark University at Worcester, Massachusetts and in 1892 was appointed professor and the first head of the department of physics at the newly organised University of Chicago. In 1902, he was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society.
In 1907, Michelson had the honour of being the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics “for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid”. He also won the Copley Medal in 1907, the Henry Draper Medal in 1916 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1923. A crater on the Moon is named after him.
Michelson died in Pasadena, California at the age of 78. The University of Chicago Residence Halls remembered Michelson and his achievements by dedicating ‘Michelson House’ in his honour. Case Western Reserve has dedicated a Michelson House to him, and Michelson Hall (an academic building of science classrooms, laboratories and offices) at the United States Naval Academy also bears his name. Michelson Laboratory at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in Ridgecrest, California is named for him. There is a display in the publicly accessible area of the Lab which includes facsimiles of Michelson’s Nobel Prize medal, the prize document, and examples of his diffraction gratings. In 2017, a newly renovated physics research centre at the University of Chicago was renamed in honour of Michelson as well.
Numerous awards, lectures, and honours have been created in Albert A. Michelson’s name. Some of the current awards and lectures named for Michelson include the following: the Bomem-Michelson Award and Lecture annually presented until 2017 by the Coblentz Society; the Michelson-Morley Award and Lecture, along with the Michelson Lecture Series, and the Michelson Postdoctoral Prize Lectureship, all of which are given annually by Case Western Reserve University; the A.A. Michelson Award presented every year by the Computer Measurement Group; the Albert A. Michelson Award given by the Navy League of the United States; and the Michelson Memorial Lecture Series presented annually by the Division of Mathematics and Science at the US Naval Academy.
In 1877 Michelson married Margaret Hemingway, daughter of a wealthy New York stockbroker and lawyer and the niece of his commander William T. Sampson, a US Navy Rear Admiral. They had two sons and a daughter.
In 1899, he married Edna Stanton. They raised three daughters.
In Popular Culture
In Season 3 Episode 26 of the television series Bonanza (“Look to the Stars”, broadcast 18 March 1962), Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) helps the 16-year-old Michelson (portrayed by 25-year-old Douglas Lambert (1936-1986)) obtain an appointment to the US Naval Academy, despite the opposition of the bigoted town schoolteacher (played by William Schallert). Bonanza was set in and around Virginia City, Nevada, where Michelson lived with his parents prior to leaving for the Naval Academy. In a voice-over at the end of the episode, Greene mentions Michelson’s 1907 Nobel Prize.
The home in which Michelson lived as a child in Murphys Camp, California was in the store of his father, first on Main Street, Murphys, CA across from the Sperry & Perry Hotel and after the 1859 fire, in a store next to the hotel. His aunt Bertha Meyers owned a house on Main Street toward the east end of town and Michelson probably visited her family there frequently.
New Beast Theatre Works in collaboration with High Concept Laboratories produced a ‘semi-opera’ about Michelson, his obsessive working style and its effect on his family life. The production ran from 11 to 26 February 2011 in Chicago at The Building Stage. Michelson was portrayed by Jon Stutzman. The play was directed by David Maral with music composed by Joshua Dumas.
Norman Fitzroy Maclean wrote an essay “Billiards is a Good Game”; published in The Norman Maclean Reader (ed. O. Alan Weltzien, 2008), it is an appreciation of Michelson from Maclean’s vantage point as a graduate student regularly watching him play billiards.